Where Lincoln’s words still echo

More than 160 years later, the prophetic words of the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln delivered in Illinois remain well known.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln told his audience on June 16, 1858. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Lincoln’s speech, part of his ill-fated 1858 U.S. Senate campaign, remains the most historic moment of the 182-year history of the Springfield building now known as the Old State Capitol.

Illinois’ fifth state capitol building took sixteen years to build, after the General Assembly spent three years debating the question of where it would be located. From 1834 to 1837, the General Assembly, meeting in the then-capital city of Vandalia, argued and re-argued the question of whether to move the capital city once its initial 20-year commitment to Vandalia expired. Springfield emerged victorious, thanks in no small part to aggressive lobbying by then-Representative Lincoln and a pledge from leaders of the unincorporated municipality in Sangamon County to donate the public square (between 5th, 6th, Washington and Adams Streets) and $50,000 for construction of a new capitol building.

The state matched the new capital city’s pledge, and set to work on building a new Greek revival-style, limestone capitol building which would rival the great buildings of the western United States. Springfield architect John F. Rague was contracted to lead the project. The triumphant day for Springfield came on July 4, 1837, when the building’s cornerstone was laid, with Lincoln’s friend and a future U.S. Senator Edward Baker giving the keynote speech.

A commission of three was selected to oversee construction. One of the original commissioners was Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon. Construction dragged on: the commissioners reported having spent $182,800 in 1840, and asked for another $39,000 to finish the job. A new commission was appointed, some commissioners finished their terms and were replaced. In 1847, Governor Augustus French took a seat on the commission, which was then appropriated another $20,000 for the job. The final appropriation came in 1851, and the building was finished in 1853, though more funds were needed the following year to work on the grounds around the building in order to “correspond with and be equal to the court house square in the city of Chicago.”

State government moved into the still-unfinished building in 1840, the same year Springfield; with a population of about 1100; was incorporated as a city. In those days, the capitol was the home of the entire state government: the legislature, executive branch officials, the Supreme Court, militia, state library and more. Lincoln’s ties to the building already went far beyond his service in the legislature. Strolling to the capitol from his law office across the street, he argued 200 cases in front of the state Supreme Court. He also was a frequent borrower of books from the state library, and could oftentimes be seen swapping stories and playing chess in the building’s lobby. By the time of his 1858 speech there, Lincoln was probably the building’s most well-known visitor.

Of course, he was far from the only distinguished figure to be seen around the building. Lincoln’s rival for most of the 1850s, Stephen Douglas, worked there as Secretary of State and a Supreme Court justice. He was formally elected to each of his three terms in the U.S. Senate by members of the General Assembly meeting in the legislative chambers. Defeated by Lincoln for the presidency in 1860, Douglas came to the capitol building in the twilight of his life, as the nation plunged into civil war, to deliver one of his greatest speeches: a thundering oration just two weeks after Fort Sumter in which Douglas declared his support for the new President and his loyalty to the flag.

“Every friend of freedom –every champion and advocate of constitutional liberty throughout the land must feel that this cause is his own. There is and should be nothing disagreeable or humiliating to men who have differed, in times of peace, on every question that could divide fellow men, to rally in concert in defense of this country and against all assailants,” Douglas said. “When all propositions of peace fail, and a war of aggression is proclaimed, there is but one course left for the patriot, and that is to rally under that flag which has waved over the Capitol from the days of Washington.”

The Little Giant died six weeks later.

Lincoln himself had recently vacated the building, having used Governor John Wood’s office space on the second floor as his transition headquarters before departing for Washington in February 1861. Also moving through the building during those hectic and historic days in the spring of 1861 was a failed Galena businessman, a West Point graduate and veteran of the war with Mexico; now retired from the Army; who had recently been hired as a $2-a-day mustering clerk for Illinois volunteers joining the war effort. Ulysses S. Grant was toiling away at a desk beneath a stairwell on the second floor of the building when a former colleague recognized him and suggested to Governor Richard Yates that a man with Grant’s experience might be helpful in leading the state’s troops into battle in the coming war.

Lincoln returned to the capitol for the final time on May 3, 1865, the final stop on the long, sad funeral journey home from Washington following his assassination. At 10 a.m., pallbearers carried the fallen President’s coffin into Representatives Hall, where he had given his great speech seven years before. The coffin was placed beneath a portrait of George Washington which bore a banner reading, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” For the next 24 hours, more than 75,000 people slowly paced through the capitol, paying their respects to the Great Emancipator.

During and immediately after the Civil War, Illinois became one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Its population had quadrupled since construction began on the capitol building. The state was outgrowing its own capitol. In 1867, the 25thGeneral Assembly passed legislation authorizing construction of a new capitol building. Once the new building was completed, the law directed the governor to transfer ownership of the current capitol building to Sangamon County, which would use it as a courthouse. Ground was broken at 2nd and Monroe on March 11, 1868, and the old building on the town square finished its time as state capitol in 1876.

Sangamon County used the building as its courthouse for close to 90 years. But the county encountered the same challenge as the state: outgrowing the office space. In 1901, the building was jacked up by 11 feet and a new first floor was constructed on the ground level. Many other renovations were made at that time, including a taller cupola. More changes were made in the many decades in which the building continued as a functional office space. Doorways were bricked over, new plaster walls were put in place. In 1961, having thoroughly outgrown its courthouse, Sangamon County sought to sell the property. Boosted by the nationwide interest in the centennial of the Civil War, historic preservationists persuaded the state of Illinois to re-purchase the property as a historic site.

State historians searched through archival records to restore, as accurately as possible, the building to its appearance from Lincoln’s time. The original architectural plans and drawings had been lost, so the researchers painstakingly reviewed contemporary accounts to collect as much detail as possible. In February 1966, architects from Ferry and Henderson began one of the most remarkable restoration projects in Illinois history: removing every single stone from the exterior of the building, one by one, cataloging its exact location, and storing them at the state fairgrounds to eventually be replaced in their original location. The remaining building material was torn down on July 12, 1966.

The now-vacant public square was excavated so that a parking garage and space for the Illinois Historical Library could be built. During this process, builders discovered a 14-foot deep brick well that had been forgotten by history. Once the below-ground construction was done, the Old State Capitol was completely rebuilt to its exact 1837 dimensions: 123 feet 4 inches from east-to-west, 89 feet 1 inch from north-to-south. The roof stands 59 feet high, with another 54 feet 3 inches for the cupola, all topped by a 36-foot flagpole.

The interior was also restored as closely as possible to the original appearance, though modern lighting heating and air conditioning have been incorporated in such a way as to disrupt the original appearance as little as possible. The modern elevator is located where the original dumbwaiter system was used to hoist coal from the basement to the upper floors. The Abraham Lincoln Association raised $300,000 from private donors to purchase furnishings for the building, augmenting the artwork, furniture and Lincoln memorabilia from the State Historical Library collection. No detail was overlooked, right down to the inkwells on the desks of the legislators.

Over the 50 years since the restored Old State Capitol re-opened to visitors, it has become the hub of Springfield’s historic downtown, as well as a gathering place for major historic events. President Richard Nixon visited in 1971 to sign legislation making Lincoln’s Home a National Historic Site. On a frigid day in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign from the building’s lawn. Two years later, it was the scene of a series of events commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial birthday, including the unveiling of a specially-designed United States penny which features the building on its reverse side.

The Old State Capitol and its grounds host band concerts, citizenship ceremonies, living history encampments, and special events like Springfield’s Old Capitol Art Fair and the Route 66 Mother Road festival, among many others. The capitol is the setting of the annual Abraham Lincoln Symposium around Lincoln’s birthday in February. State government sometimes uses the Representatives Hall chamber for certain ceremonial occasions.

For those who just wish to stop by and see the building where so much of Illinois’ history was written, it is open for organized or self-guided tours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except state holidays.